After nearly three years of preparation, small satellite launch company Rocket Lab will attempt to catch one of its rockets in mid-air today, after launching the craft into space from New Zealand. With the missile back on Earth, Rocket Lab will use a helicopter to try to disable the booster before it hits the ocean. In this way, the missile can be launched again.
It will be the first time that Rocket Lab has attempted to catch one of its Electron missiles in a helicopter, as part of the company’s plan to recover and reuse its vehicles after launch. So far, the Electron – designed to launch groups of small satellites into low Earth orbit – has been a consumable rocket. Most of these missiles fall to the ground after each flight and are eventually destroyed.
But by catching its rockets and reusing them after flight, Rocket Lab hopes to lower the manufacturing cost associated with building an entirely new rocket for each of its missions. The goal is similar to that of SpaceX, which has been famous for landing its rockets and reusing them after flight. Rocket Lab also claims that recovering and reusing its missiles can also help speed up their flight cadence. “By making one again, it saves a tremendous amount of time as you don’t have to build an entire new rocket from scratch,” says Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab. the edge. “So obviously we’ll see some good cost savings, but I think the most important thing for us right now is just getting the vehicles back on the production line.”
When the electron blasts off into space, the onboard computers guide the booster back through Earth’s atmosphere, maneuvering it just the right way so that it stays intact while falling to Earth. Once the rocket reaches a height of about 8.3 miles, it deploys a rolling canopy to slow its fall, followed by a main parachute. As the missile floats leisurely toward the ocean, then the helicopter will arrive and attempt to capture the parachute line with a dangling hook, avoiding splashing into the salty sea water.
Rocket Lab has been working on a recovery plan since 2019, when it was It announced that it will try to make its electronic missiles reusable. The first major test came in December 2019, when Rocket Lab I tested its guidance and control system on the Electron. For Rocket Lab, directing the electron’s fall through the atmosphere is one of the hardest parts of this whole process. “I think a lot of people think the hardest thing is catching the rocket, and it’s definitely hard,” Beck says. “But really, from an engineering point of view, the hardest thing was making sure the missile survived through re-entry.” The missile can reach speeds of more than 5,000 miles per hour as it descends, and it must remain in one piece while scorching plasma builds up around the vehicle.
Rocket Lab successfully shot down intact Electron missiles in ocean, and the company retrieved three rockets from the water to learn more about their trips to land. The company’s engineers were able to open the missiles and strip some of their components in order to launch them again. Rocket Lab too Demonstrate Electron’s ability to deploy its various parachutes after launch. and the company Helicopter to pick up a fake missile in the air (Although the fake booster did not fall from space but was launched from another nearby helicopter.)
Now, Rocket Lab is putting all of those steps together with its upcoming release, called “There and Back Again” – a nod to the nature of the trip and also a fitting homage to New Zealand where the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were filmed. Even though the company rehearsed every move, it would still need to do it all together to launch one. “The other thing that’s really logistically challenging is: Can you meet a missile under a parachute in the middle of the ocean?” Beck says. “I mean, a few moments ago, he was traveling at eight times the speed of sound.”
If the helicopter succeeds in capturing Electron, the company will take the booster back to New Zealand and offload it onto a truck. The missile can also be dropped on a boat first if the trip home is too difficult. Rocket Lab will then take a closer look at the vehicle to see how well it fared. From now on, Rocket Lab will be selective about what tasks are retrieved. Recovered flights need more onboard systems, which means the car can’t carry much into space. In addition, the path an electron takes in orbit will influence Rocket Lab’s decision to try a helicopter hunt. “Some paths are not very suitable for recovery,” Beck says. “So there will not be 100 percent reuse in every vehicle. It will probably be 50 percent or more.”
But first, Rocket Lab must prove it can catch a missile that drops by a helicopter. The company has postponed the launch several times because it is waiting for ideal weather conditions. Now, “there and back again” Departure scheduled for 6:35 PM ET, with the helicopter catching taking place sometime after the main parachute deployed, about eight and a half minutes after launch. Morgan Bailey, director of communications for Rocket Lab, says the company will try to provide a live broadcast of the event, and there will be a camera on the helicopter’s pickup line. But the company warns that maintaining contact all the time will be difficult.
“Space is tough but so is live TV,” Billy tweeted.
Update May 2, 4:50 PM ET: This post has been updated with additional information on how the booster can go home.
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